Do wildfires exacerbate COVID-19 infections and deaths in vulnerable communities? Evidence from California

Suyang Yu, Lily Hsueh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Understanding whether and how wildfires exacerbate COVID-19 outcomes is important for assessing the efficacy and design of public sector responses in an age of more frequent and simultaneous natural disasters and extreme events. Drawing on environmental and emergency management literatures, we investigate how wildfire smoke (PM2.5) impacted COVID-19 infections and deaths during California's 2020 wildfire season and how public housing resources and hospital capacity moderated wildfires' effects on COVID-19 outcomes. We also hypothesize and empirically assess the differential impact of wildfire smoke on COVID-19 infections and deaths in counties exhibiting high and low social vulnerability. To test our hypotheses concerning wildfire severity and its disproportionate impact on COVID-19 outcomes in socially vulnerable communities, we construct a county-by-day panel dataset for the period April 1 to November 30, 2020, in California, drawing on publicly available state and federal data sources. This study's empirical results, based on panel fixed effects models, show that wildfire smoke is significantly associated with increases in COVID-19 infections and deaths. Moreover, wildfires exacerbated COVID-19 outcomes by depleting the already scarce hospital and public housing resources in local communities. Conversely, when wildfire smoke doubled, a one percent increase in the availability of hospital and public housing resources was associated with a 2 to 7 percent decline in COVID-19 infections and deaths. For California communities exhibiting high social vulnerability, the occurrence of wildfires worsened COVID-19 outcomes. Sensitivity analyses based on an alternative sample size and different measures of social vulnerability validate this study's main findings. An implication of this study for policymakers is that communities exhibiting high social vulnerability will greatly benefit from local government policies that promote social equity in housing and healthcare before, during, and after disasters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116918
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - Feb 15 2023


  • COVID-19 infections and deaths
  • Environmental justice
  • Healthcare resources
  • Public housing and shelters
  • Social vulnerability
  • Wildfires

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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